Continuing revelations of Alvin Ailey

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 28, 2015
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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater filled Zellerbach Hall night after night last week. Since Ailey's death of AIDS in 1989, the company he shaped has survived perhaps better than any other modern dance company, building on his eclectic and generous aesthetic and bringing in new choreography that is grateful for the dancers and, in the best way, an education for the audience.

Ailey belonged to two minorities: that he was African-American, anyone could see; that he was gay, perhaps could be guessed through his overachievement in making art that would make his mother proud. His masterpiece, Revelations (1960), is a kind of portrait of her world, the hopes, fears, longings, inner spiritual piety, and the social pecking order of the down-home church in Texas that she grew up in, set to the music of that world. Every one of their six shows last week closed with Revelations, which sets the whole audience to dancing in their chairs, or on their feet, rocking and clapping, and sends them home happy.

Ailey hit his stride just as the U.S. State Department was getting busy sending American dance companies overseas as goodwill ambassadors, to counteract the impact of the fantastically popular tours of the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets, which were obviously propagandizing for Soviet ideals. Ailey's joined the companies of Graham, Balanchine and Joffrey, and Revelations took shape under these touring conditions, with the result that it is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser that never fails to bring a crowd to its feet.

The show I saw Wednesday night was a beautifully chosen mixed bill, opening with a thrilling display of the company's physicality in Hans Van Manen's Polish Pieces. Encased in all-over body tights in varying metallic hues, the 11 dancers looked like statues, moving with great power in tight, confined patterns, with brilliant, super-fast pencil-turns that emphasized their power in creating shapes and maintaining them with superhuman control. The hard-edged music, by Henryk Gorecki, evoked an atmosphere of humanity struggling with forces of mechanization. Large group formations toggled against poignant dances for couples. The Ailey technique emphasizes muscularity, almost Michelangelesque �" so the sculptural integrity of the torso involves pathos, and begs you to feel the effort involved in containing emotion within these extravagant postures. Van Manen's rigor pulls the Ailey silhouettes back from the Expressionist edge into an almost Nordic realm of restraint �" but you feel the power coming from the dancers, and have to admire the choice by Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle of Van Manen as an artist who could work with his dancers and extend a gift they already have into a new direction.

Similarly, Battle's decision to include a 1932 brief, glorious solo by the Sierra Leone choreographer Asadata Dafora (recreated by Charles Moore) dips into African heritage and uses the heroic muscularity of the male dancer to magnificent effect. Awassa Astrige/Ostrich is based on a traditional African bird dance, staged in a Western manner that put me in mind of Dying Swan. It lasts about as long, and displays the bird, and the wing-like movements of the heroically-built Jamar Roberts, wearing a skirt of ostrich plumes, from many angles. The muscles of his back weave into the sexiest undulation of major muscle groups I've ever seen �" without ever losing the dignity of a creature observed with admiration and awe.

Similarly, Battle's commission of a dance from San Francisco's Robert Moses uses the dancers in a new and beautiful way, rather like Dafora's bird �" less monumental than Van Manen, more tender, open, vulnerable, expansive. Moses set five couples in a dark. smoky realm moving to music by David Worm that put me in mind of Electronica. At first, they're in closed position, with the women opening out like night-blooming flowers and closing back in to embrace their partners. The effect was trance-like. Tambourine percussion yielded to something more melodic, with harmonies that reminded me of "Begin the Beguine." The group opened up, the pulses grew larger, the imagery grew; it still felt like flowers opening into larger and more vulnerable shapes.

Revelations closed the show; they do not seem to be tired of dancing it. It is a nearly perfect work of art, a classic in every sense: structurally immaculate, no step could be changed, every gesture tells, and every time you see it there is more there. The opening section is hieratic, set to great mournful hymns, and realized in tableau of great sculptural power. It gets moving with a Baptism, set to powerfully rhythmic music, with Caribbean hip undulations as they wade in the water. (Ailey had worked with Harry Belafonte.) By this point, the rhythms have become so intoxicating, it's very hard to sit still in your chair. The finale of the piece peels your eyes with the desperate, thrilling expressionistic starts and convulsions of "Sinner Man, where you gonna run to?" and perhaps the most effective use of pirouettes in all of ballet �" in a ballet that has no other use of fast turns, this section has the terrified man spin 10-12 revolutions at top speed, like a centrifuge going out of control. It ends with a scene in church, with ladies working their palmetto fans like drag queens, and then a socko finale that puts the rock and roll into "Rocka my Soul in the bosom of Abraham." If you've never seen them, Cal Performances brings them back next year, and you've got to go.

Meanwhile, in two weeks Robert Moses' Kin will be celebrating their 20th anniversary of dancing as a San Francisco-based troupe, dancing at the Forum at Yerba Buena Gardens. Moses was a star with ODC/SF for many years; he is a dancer who can move like smoke, and he's succeeded in keeping a company together long enough to teach them his extraordinary style. And he's attracted some of the most interesting dancers in town. His company is immensely worth seeing: May 14-17.